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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Busy Week

Stinger and I are in New York this week, celebrating the holidays with some of our nearest and dearest, so my blogging will be sporadic. Which it would've been anyway, since I'm also under deadline and writing like a fiend every day we're here! Except yesterday, when I finished going over the page proofs for On the Steamy Side, the second of the Recipe for Love novels, which will be out in March 2010.

You guys! I *may* have teared up in the middle of the coffeeshop where I was doing the read-through. I was supposed to be looking for typos, and I found some, but mostly what I found was that I still love that story and am happy with the way it turned out, so that was a huge Christmas gift! It can be so difficult, when you're in the midst of writing the story, to really tell how it's going. Page proofs are make-or-break time, where you finally get to read over the entire thing after having had enough time off from it to almost be a fresh pair of eyes. My main reaction after reading is that I can't wait to share Lilah and Devon's story with all of you! Also, relief that I finished the proofs a day early and could get back to writing the third book. LOL

If you're still looking for holiday baking ideas, the New York Times posted this page full of reader-submitted recipes and photos. I would give anything for a fully stocked kitchen and the time to mix up a dozen batches of cookies right now!

What are you guys baking? Let me live vicariously through you as I sit at my desk in my hotel room, dreaming of creaming butter and sugar together...

Friday, December 18, 2009

Call for Submissions!

[This is reposted with permission from Marley Gibson.]

Now looking for submissions for The Christmas Spirit, the sequel to the wildly successful "Christmas Miracles" book. This new project is a book that we have contracted with St. Martin’s Press for the fall of 2011. However, the completed manuscript is due in the spring of 2010. Bestselling author, Debbie Macomber, has agreed to write the foreword.
We seek true stories that emphasize the significance of the Christmas season. So often, we get caught up in the busy-ness of the season—the shopping, the family drama, and the event planning—that we lose sight of the true meaning of Christmas. Sometimes, through God's grace or what some call a twist of fate, we're able to step back and grasp the real meaning of Christmas and our lives are enriched. These are the kind of stories we are seeking.
Thanks so much!
Marley = )

***Louisa's note: You will find the story submission guidelines here.***

Thursday, December 17, 2009

More Holiday Spirit

We've talked movies and baking, but another way I like to get into the holiday spirit is by reading holiday-themed stories. My mom started this tradition when I was little by having us all read Charles Dickens's Christmas Carol aloud as a family, and to this day, when December rolls around I start getting the itch for books featuring miracles, mistletoe kisses, and holiday cheer.

I've seen several people asking for recommendations of favorite holiday-themed romances lately, so I thought I'd share a few of mine! Weirdly, they're all historical--but that's purely a coincidence. I'm sure there are some great Christmas contemporaries, and if you know of one, I'd love to hear about it!

The Shadow and the Star by Laura Kinsale
Strictly speaking, not a holiday-themed romance, but a large, important stretch of the book takes place at a Christmas house party. There are surprisingly intoxicating brandied cherries, a game of Victorian-era Secret Santa that goes horribly wrong--or right?, and basically it's one of the best books ever. It was the first big historical romance I read, and it hooked me on romance for life. I even made brandied cherries last year! If you haven't read this yet, you're missing out. It's a classic for a reason.

An Affair Before Christmas
by Eloisa James
This was one of James's Desperate Duchesses novels, and I enjoyed it immensely. It gave a real sense of the time period, down to some of the less pleasant details most historicals gloss right over, and in fact, those details were pivotal to the characters and the plot. Highly unique and very satisfying.

This Wicked Gift by Courtney Milan
A novella in the Heart of Christmas anthology, this is Courtney Milan's debut. Her first full length novel, Proof by Seduction, will be out January 1st, and based on this novella? I'm pre-ordering that sucker. Milan is good! This not your standard bored society lady/ravishing rake/Almack's-and-Hyde-Park historicals. The lack of wealthy dukes is enough to make this book stand out, but what really affected me was the amount of sensual detail. The prose appeals to every single one of the reader's senses, and it's enough to make you feel like you're right there. I loved it.

What are some of your favorite holiday romances?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Smexy Books

One of my favorite book blogs, Smexy Books, posted a review of Can't Stand the Heat! Check it out. Even though it's not the guest reviewer's usual fare, she seems to have enjoyed it quite a bit. Yay! This made my day.

Favorite quote from the review: "A great book to curl up with on a cold winters night with a delicious hot chocolate for a cosy girls night in." Plus lots of other interesting insight and commentary! Go read. And then stay to check out the site if you're not familiar with it; it's really a lot of fun.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Romance Junkies Reviewer's Favorite

I just found out that Can't Stand the Heat is going to be featured as a Reviewer's Favorite for the month of December on the fabulous Romance Junkies website! I love those guys. Their site is big and bold and offers a lot of variety in terms of ways to experience romance novels. I'm so flattered they picked my book! Their original review of CStH was awesome, too.

This just made my week!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

My Wish List

On some level, I feel like wish lists are cheating. Whenever I ask someone I love to tell me what he or she wants for a birthday or for Christmas, I feel guilty--shouldn't I know what my best friend/sister/parent/husband wants without being told? I get a huge charge out of flying blind and finding that perfect gift I know, without asking, will make someone happy. It's satisfying, the way I imagine deer hunting must be for some: the tension of the search, the thrill of the chase, the eureka moment of discovery, all culminating in the glory of hauling home the prize.

And yet, I recognize that isn't always practical or possible. We aren't mind readers, most of us, and I truly believe it's a courtesy to others to provide a wish list in gift-giving situations, to relieve the pressure of having to hunt down the perfect gift, and the stress of wondering if you're duplicating something your giftee already owns.

I was having a hard time coming up with a list of my own this year. Or even one single thing, when individual people would ask me what I want! After all, my birthday wasn't that long ago, and I got the two cookbooks I'd been lusting after (Ad Hoc at Home and Momofuku) and I couldn't think of anything else I wanted.

Until I started shopping for my friends and family. Now? I'm ready with my list! So here it is. Go nuts.

*Le Creuset Heritage Oval Cocotte-how many recipes call for a covered casserole? SO many, and I usually just use my Dutch oven. Which works okay, I guess, but this thing is sooo pretty.* Bundt pan - It's crazy, I know, but somehow in all my many bakeware shopping sprees, I've never picked up a Bundt pan. I have a tube pan, and round cake pans, and loaf pans, but no Bundt. Clearly, an oversight. This one is pretty!* Top Chef ANYTHING - I'm obsessed. I admit that. But how cool is this stuff? There's a whole Top Chef Cookbook AND a Quickfire cookbook! And a game? How did I not know about this stuff? I also think I might like to have Tom Colicchio's Think Like a Chef. Could be interesting for research.
Does that help? I can't think of anything else right now. Maybe some dangly earrings, and the special edition DVD of the new Star Trek movie. I don't know. I'd actually be pretty happy with donations made in my honor to Equality Federation, Heifer International, or the Metropolitan Opera. Oh, and if you could get Gourmet Magazine started back up, that would be nifty!

Happy shopping. : )

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Holiday Movies

I know I said baking was the thing that most got me into the holiday spirit, and that's true--but music and movies help, too! My family and I have a somewhat eclectic collection of Christmas classics (at least, they're classics as far as we're concerned) that we watch every year. Some of them you might watch, too--some are so weird, you might never have tried them! But all of them are fun, so I'm listing my favorites for you.
It's a Wonderful Life - Still one of the best movies ever made, and egregious overplaying of it all through December can't change that.
The Ref - Possibly the most profane of our holiday faves, Denis Leary is hysterical as a thief who takes the world's most contentious couple hostage. This is a GREAT movie, and almost no one has ever heard of it.
Miracle on 34th St. - The old one, with Maureen O'Hara. It's lovely! Baby Natalie Wood will break your heart. Christmas in Connecticut - Barbara Stanwyck and a memorable cast of secondary characters make this cute romantic comedy about a Martha Stewart-esque writer who doesn't actually know how to cook sparkle! Trapped in Paradise - Nicolas Cage, Jon Lovitz and Dana Carvey are brothers--and it just gets less plausible from there. Tons of fun!
Scrooged - Of course. Bill Murray? Stapling antlers to mice heads? David Johansen of the New York Dolls as the Ghost of Christmas Past screaming "It's a BONE!" at a dog in a children's show? I'm there.
The Grinch Who Stole Christmas - Both the cartoon and the Jim Carrey version. I love them.
Mixed Nuts - Steve Martin heads up this incredibly wacky, sweet, slightly sicko movie about a band of do-gooders, a pregnant Juliette Lewis, a cross-dressing Liev Schrieber, and a serial killer. It's a comedy. I swear!
Love Actually - One of our newest additions, and I can't wait to watch it every year. Probably my favorite storyline is Liam Neeson and the adorable little boy who's in love for the first time. But Bill Nighy as the aging rockstar is a close second. Oh, they're all good!
Die Hard - A holiday tradition in my family that I've since found in other families, and it's one of those things that lets me know right away that we can be close friends. Like choosing Pride & Prejudice over Wuthering Heights, or football over baseball. If you watch Die Hard at Christmas, you're my kind of people.

So what are your favorite holiday movies? Anything weird I might not have seen? I love to discover new xmas faves, but I warn you now, anything with stop-animation creeps me out, so I won't be watching that one where Santa is a young Dutchman, or whatever.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Twitter Book Club: Heart Throb by Suzanne Brockmann

Are you into Twitter? I am. I find it a fun way to connect with other writers and readers, share stories and good information, make each other giggle, etc. For those of us who work at home and largely alone, Twitter is a virtual water cooler, a place to gather and gab.

And now, a place to discuss books! Some Twitter friends and I are all planning to read HEART THROB by Suzanne Brockmann, starting today, and tweet our thoughts and reactions under the hashtag #HT. Please feel free to read along and join in the fun! For most of us, it's a re-read, since HEART THROB came out in 1999. It was actually one of the first Brockmann books I ever read, and boy, did she hook me.

Here's the blurb:
Once voted the "Sexiest Man Alive," Jericho Beaumont had dominated the box office before his fall from grace. Now poised for a comeback, he wants the role of Laramie bad enough to sign an outrageous contract with top producer Kate O'Laughlin--one that gives her the authority to supervise JB's every move, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

The last thing Kate wants to do is baby-sit her leading man, and Jericho Beaumont may be more than she can handle. A player in every sense of the word, he is an actor of incredible talent--and a man with a darkly haunted past. Despite her better judgment, Kate's attraction flares into explosive passion, and she is falling fast. But is she being charmed by the real Jericho or the superstar who dazzles the world?

If you want to check out an excerpt, click here.

It's been years since I last read HEART THROB, although I've read it more than once. I remember it for its multi-level daring: conventional wisdom is that readers won't buy romances with movie star heroes, and the subplot romance? Features a young interracial couple.

Brockmann has a background in film, so her movie setting is layered and textured and fascinating--but what really caught me about this book was the subplot. I would venture to say that 95% of my love of the romantic subplot, and using it to push the boundaries of mainstream romance, comes from HEART THROB.

Obviously, I can't wait to reread! I really hope some of you will hop on the Twitter Book Club train too. If it's your first time reading HEART THROB, or your seventh, you're welcome!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Bourbon Balls!

My mother's people are from Mississippi. A fine old family (which, if you're Southern, you know has nothing to do with financial status and everything to do with how loooooong your family has been in the same town) that didn't believe in drinking alcohol--but did believe in baking with it. Every December our house would fill to overflowing with Mississippi Nut Cake (aka Whiskey Cake,) bourbon and brandy-soaked fruitcakes, high test eggnog (usually with bourbon), and my childhood favorite, Bourbon Balls. (No Saturday Night Live NPR sketch jokes, please!)

This no-bake treat could not be simpler to make, and it packs huge flavor in a tiny bite. They're extra festive if you happen to have some edible gold powder to add to the mix. Otherwise, just sift some powdered sugar over them and call it a day. All that is really just gilding the lily, anyway, because the real star here is, of course, the booze! Give these a try if, like my family, you enjoy the smoky honey and molasses bite of bourbon. Don't worry, they're not too strong! Just strong enough. ; )

Share them with your fun friends and neighbors, and feel free to share the recipe, too! They make good gifts, are great for a make-ahead dessert platter, and are the perfect final note to a big, holiday meal.

Full disclosure: I have no idea where this recipe originally came from; it's the one my family has been using and tweaking for decades. If you recognize it as your original work, let me know and I'll happily give you proper credit!

Bourbon Balls

2 tablespoons cocoa powder
3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon powdered sugar (more if you plan to sift a light layer over the finished balls)
2 cups vanilla wafer crumbs
1/2 cup pecans, toasted, cooled, then chopped
1/3 cup bourbon (my mama always uses Jack Daniels, but I really like the sweeter flavor of Basil Hayden's or Woodford Reserve)
3 tablespoons honey
1/4 teaspoon edible gold powder (optional)

Sift together cocoa, 1 tablespoon of the powdered sugar and gold powder, if using, and stir well. Set aside in a small bowl.

Stir together wafer crumbs and pecans. In another bowl, whisk bourbon, 3/4 cup powdered sugar, and honey. Pour into crumb mixture. Stir until well combined.

Form into balls and roll in cocoa mixture. If you didn't use the edible gold powder, you may like to sift a light dusting of powdered sugar over the balls. Or not! Whatever looks good to you. Enjoy!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Getting In the Holiday Mood

Nothing fills me with the holiday spirit quite so much as baking. Bourbon balls, whiskey cake, bourbon-soaked fruitcake (are we sensing a theme, here?) as well as lemon cranberry tea bread, gingerbread cookies, and more. In years past, I've baked most of the gifts we've given out to friends, neighbors, and officemates, not to save money but just for the love of it! Of course, this year, baking gifts feels smart for many reasons--it's something you can do to show people you care about them without spending tons of moolah, and in a lot of ways, I think a gift of cookies or cake you made yourself is more meaningful than something purchased in a store.

My mother's whiskey cake, formally known as Mississippi Nut Cake by my teetotalling Baptist ancestors to gloss over the heavy presence of bourbon, is a universal favorite. I make it every year, and just getting out the nutmeg and the golden raisins, the Jack Daniels and the pecans, makes it feel like Christmas to me.

Another great gift, and one maybe better suited to a family with members under the age of 21, is this Walnut Crown Coffeecake. This recipe comes from Martha Wertz, a great cook and my mother's best friend, and it is divine.

Walnut Crown Coffeecake

In a bowl combine 1/3 cup ground walnuts with 3 TBS sifted light brown sugar. Butter a 2 1/2 cup Kugelhupf pan or tube pan (I use a regular bundt cake pan) and coat it with the walnut mixture. Into a bowl sift together 2 cups sifted flour, 1 3/4 cups sugar, 1 teaspoon each of baking powder and baking soda, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. In another bowl beat 1 egg and add 1 cup buttermilk, 2/3 cup melted butter, cooled and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Beat in the flour mixture until the batter is smooth. Turn into the prepared pan and bake in a moderate oven (350 degrees F) for 1 hour or until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Let the cake cool in the pan for 5 minutes, turn it out on a wire rack, and let it cool completely. Wrap the cake tightly in plastic wrap and foil and let it stand at room temp. for up to 7 days.

Note: This cake was one of several recipes that were meant to get better and better as they age. I have never kept it up to 7 days, but it has been good at all stages. It is also so rich that it is meant to fall a little as it cooks. I think I bake it in a larger pan than the recipe anticipates, so check it after 30-40 minutes of baking. It is sometimes so tender that it falls apart, but the crumbs taste great.

So what holiday baking traditions do you hold to every year, or do you try something new? I always want to make at least one thing I've never made before; this year, I think it's going to be these pistachio cranberry icebox cookies.

If you've got a great holiday recipe, please feel free to share!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Top Chef Rehash

**SPOILER ALERT** I will be talking about what happened in last night's episode of Top Chef. If you haven't watched it yet, DON'T KEEP READING!

Now then. I assume we've all seen part one of the season finale of Top Chef, yes? Last chance to bail.

It was a tough episode for me to watch. This season is unique in that all of the final four chefs have been frontrunners at one point or another, and I actually think each of them is a talented chef who will go far in his or her career. Kevin is a sweetheart, although I think he sometimes plays it too safe. Bryan brings a level of professionalism and manages to combine technique with solid ideas. Michael, who can sometimes be a pain, does think about food in a way that appeals to me--for instance, in last night's Quickfire when the challenge was about using grapes, he took it to the extreme by using the branches, the leaves, and the fruit. I like how hard he works, and how risky he is, but I don't love his younger-brother attitude and the way he's always got something to prove.

And then there's Jen, who is the only one who rivals Michael in terms of intensity. In Hannibal Lechter's terms, she's a deep roller, someone for whom failure is personal and all-encompassing. No one is harder on Jen than Jen. She psychs herself out.

I loved her. Her food at the beginning of the season always sounded amazing, and very delicate--a thoughtful layering of flavors and textures that did her mentor, Eric Ripert of the perfect hair and sexy French accent, very proud. Then she make a mistake or two and went into a shame spiral, only managing to pull herself out of it by the skin of her teeth in time to make the final four.

I'd hoped the six-week hiatus would be good for her, give her a chance to get her confidence back, and that did appear to happen. She was like the old Jen last night, uncompromising and sure of herself, dedicated to winning. I was so happy--until I realized how much of her we were seeing; every other confessional was from her, which if you watch as much reality TV as I shamefully do, you know means we were being set up to watch her go. Still, I hoped against hope (even though they had her talk about why she was on Top Chef--for her mother--the kiss of death!) and the dishes she made for the crush party sounded fabulous. The judges didn't love her vegetarian option, sure, but they raved about the Sonoma duck. It's "duckiness," how the accompaniments supported but didn't overwhelm the flavor of the bird, etc. I had hope!

Until they got in the judging room and Tom asked her to talk about why she confited the meat instead of grilling it, as she'd originally intended. And Jen said she hadn't been paying close attention to the wood-burning grill and the fire died out, so she had to do something else. When asked if she was happy with the way the dish turned out, she said she wished she could've used the grill for the smoky flavor, even though she'd said while serving it that she loved the way it turned out and thought it might even have been better as a confit dish.

That was what did her in. She had the opportunity to cast her decision to confit the duck in a positive light, and instead she downplayed the dish and played up her own inattention. The story could've been that the grill wasn't working so she had to make a change on the fly, but hey! It came out so great, she ended up loving it more because the confit was part of what enhanced that duck flavor all the judges loved so much! Instead, the story the judges took away was that she was unfocused and scattered in the kitchen, and that maybe the duck could've been better.

It made me think about story, and the ways that memories and perceptions can be colored by the details we add later. The dish was the dish was the dish. They loved it when they were eating it, but by the time they got to Judges Table, they were looking for more details from her to bolster their opinion, which was based on a memory. And instead of giving them a positive story, she gave them a negative one.

I've seen this happen on other shows; on America's Next Top Model, often a girl who's consistently delivered better photo shoots will be sent home in favor of a girl who "wants it more." Gordon Ramsay, on Hell's Kitchen, is particularly susceptible to the story of an inexperienced young cook who works hard and learns a lot while on the job.

As much as the judges on Top Chef try to base their decisions on the food, they're human. And humans crave context.

So Jen went home, and I felt awful for her. But I also took a lesson from her--modesty is all well and good, but in a situation like that? Stand by your work.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Thanksgiving Yum

And now, a pictorial tour of my delicious southern Thanksgiving dinner at The Homestead in Virginia!

I started off with oyster stew--very traditional in my family, and this was an excellent version. One of the best things I ate! Creamy and luscious, the oysters tender and briny--just about perfect.Then we moved on to salads. The banquet table groaned under the weight of the many bowls of different cold side dishes, everything from divinity (the ubiquitous fruit salad with tiny marshmallows--not my favorite) to marinated roasted vegetables. I chose (starting from the top and going clockwise) rosemary cashews and spiced walnuts, house-smoked salmon with dill cream sauce, shredded carrot and raising salad (too heavy on the nutmeg this year, sad,) sliced potato salad that I didn't love, a very mayonnaisey and delicious seven layer salad with peas and cheddar, and a delicious potato salad with bacon. Next, the main event: the turkey! My little confession is that I'm not a huge fan of turkey, especially in banquet hall settings like this. The bird is so easy to dry out, and extra time on the carving board under a heat lamp doesn't usually improve the situation. I chose dark meat to try to mitigate the problem, but it didn't really help. The cranberry sauce was pretty good, though! I also took a little venison stew (bottom of the picture) and I absolutely had to try their little stuffed quail! So cute, and much juicier than the turkey. That's it on the top right, next to the extremely traditional brown sauce. I forced down some sweet potatoes, again for the sake of tradition, but they were mashed and covered with gooey marshmallows, which is far from my favorite preparation. The second best bit of the entire meal is on that plate on the bottom left--the green bean casserole topped with crunchy fried onions! Totally delicious; I could've eaten a whole plate of nothing but that.Except I had to save room for dessert! The Homestead's dessert option are always varied and plentiful. I never seem to enjoy anyone's pumpkin pie but my mother's, so I avoided that and picked pecan instead, which was great. Also a key lime tartlet, because I can never resist key lime anything, and generous portion of apple cranberry cobbler, topped with a boozy and delicious creme anglaise. Yum!In case you're wondering, no, I did not clean all these plates! I picked lots of different things so I could try a bit of each, but the only things I finished were the green bean casserole, the potato salad with bacon, the smoked salmon, and the key lime tart.

So what did you have alongside your bird? Did you try anything new or stick to the old standby favorites? Anything you'll definitely make again?

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